25 December 2012

Guadalupe Reef

After leaving the Chisos, our ragtag band of guys headed north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The next day, most of the guys left to climb the mountain, but I was in no shape to head out. My foot was killing me after my boots broke the day before, and I realized I needed to take the day off. So I limped off on my own into the desert to see what birds I could turn up. My slow pace ended up being to my advantage as I was able to turn up quite a few new state birds from my list. First thing I saw was a large flock of Western Bluebirds feeding in the area, and it turned out to be one of the most common birds of the day. A large flock of Pine Siskins also roamed through the brush, appearing from time to time, and a lone Townsend's Solitaire was being chased around by Phainopeplas.

I ended up returning to the car just briefly before a large storm hit and trapped me in the car for the rest of the day. However, my morning hobble did produce quite a few good pictures!

Townsend's Solitaire, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Mule Deer, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

After our hike around the Guadalupe Mountains, we headed north to Carlsbad, where I did as little birding as possible and spent as much time underground as I could. We even did an off-paved trail tour to see the famous White Giant formation, something that involved tight squeezes, belly crawls, rope climbs and more. It was an incredible experience.

My brevity now, however, is related to my finishing this post on Christmas morning! So first of all, Merry Christmas to whoever reads this. Secondly, I have spent the past week (the week after Texas) with my family here in Colorado. Northern Shrikes and American Tree Sparrows have kept me entertained but, tomorrow, I leave for Florida and points beyond in my quest for birds.

In case I can't post for a while, hope everyone has a good new year, and I'll post again as soon as I can.

24 December 2012

Chisos Trek

After canoeing in the Rio Grande River, our rag-tag group headed into the Chisos Basin to begin our backpacking trip. I did not use my camera much as we headed into the mountains as it was bulky while hiking up the trails, but as always, my binoculars were there and ready to use. The first day was marked by us hiking up to the Boulder Mountain Campground. It was a good hike, and we arrived right at dusk to set up our camp. The next morning, I woke up at four thirty with two of the other guys to head to the top of Emory Peak to watch the sun rise over the Sierra del Carmen. Needless to say, we were not disappointed.

Sunrise from Emory Peak, Texas, over the Sierra del Carmen in Coahuila, Mexico

From here, we hiked back down to rejoin most of the others and reorganize for our push to the Northeast Rim for the next night. The day was as laid back as 13 miles worth of back-country hiking can be. I wandered ahead of the main group with my friend Michael Hilferty as we birded Boot Spring Canyon and beyond. We found a nice mixed flock of Black-crested Titmouse, Bushtit, Hutton's Vireo, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets in the mixed oak woodlands, and we enjoyed flocks of Mexican Jays in the mountains and other interesting birds such as Red-naped Sapsucker. Eventually we arrived at our campground, exhausted and ready to get off our feet for the night.

The next day was the monotony and consistency of hiking. The beauty of the mountains was slowly replaced by the pain in right foot. Black-crested Titmice and Spotted Towhees could not distract me as I plodded along slowly down the mountain, eventually finding myself between the two main groups of hikers alone in the mountains. By the time I reached the bottom of the mountain, my right heel was bleeding, and I had agreed to never wear these boots again.

As we sat in the parking lot preparing to leave, a lone Cedar Waxwing frolicked between the yuccas being pursued by a Northern Mockingbird as Canyon Towhees and Cactus Wrens foraged under cars.

In all, it was an amazing trip, and it marked the halfway point in our journey. As we reorganized at the van, we put the Big Bend map away and focused on our next target of the trip, the imposing Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the border with New Mexico.

21 December 2012

Big Bend

As I write this, I am avoiding packing. This winter has become extremely busy very quickly. I just returned from a week long trip to western Texas and New Mexico last night, and leave tomorrow morning for Colorado and points beyond. This is my one day of respite and recovery, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it, but do feel the urge to wander coursing through my veins. I am ready to get back in the field, and this week out west definitely whet my appetite for adventure.

I will surmise the first portion of our trip in this post, the voyage to Big Bend National Park in far western Texas.

I went with eight companions: six students from the LSU Veterinary School led by my esteemed colleague Micheal J. Hilferty (please check out his amazing site here!), a doctor, and a fellow undergrad who is a geologist. Together, we met in the pouring rain on December tenth and headed west to the promised land.

The first day consisted of 9 guys with gear crammed into one van. I'll let you fill in the details from this day for yourself.

The second day, however, was a canoe trip down the Rio Grande River along the Texas-Coahuila border through an area known as Hot Springs Canyon. We met our guides just as the sun was rising over the Chisos Mountains and headed out to the river. On our way, we flushed Scaled Quail, Lark Buntings, Black-throated Sparrows and even got the chance to get personal with a Pyrrhuloxia at a roadside stop.

Afterwards, we headed down to the river and cast off, ready to explore the canyons. One of the best birds of the day was the second bird I put my binoculars on - sheltered on the Mexican side of the river was a young Snow Goose.

The Snow Goose as seen from our canoes, hiding along the edge of the reeds.

As we continued on, we came to what the canyon is truly famous for - the hot springs. These springs occur in several areas along this part of the canyon, and are related to the same forces that once formed the imposing Chisos Mountains for which Big Bend is so well known. In the section of river we were in, we got the chance to swim in some riverside pools and watch as the water spilled out of the ground.

One of the many hot springs emerging from the mud, crystal clear with colonies of algae.

As we drifted eastward, the rock outcroppings became more imposing. Marsh Wrens, Canyon Wrens, and Rock Wrens inhabited their own riverside niche habitats, as Black, Say's and Eastern Phoebes flycatched from their own preferred perches. A Peregrine Falcon flew down the main canyon before us, and turtles watched us from the bank.

Eventually, we found ourselves near Rio Grande Village where we hiked up to the rim of Hot Springs Canyon. The walk around was pretty nice, as I heard a Verdin call, Yellow-rumped Warblers foraged in the cottonwoods as Golden-fronted Woodpeckers flew about, and I even found a surprise Black-throated Gray Warbler! At the end of the hike, the view was definitely worth it.

Hot Springs Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas

From here, we floated the rest of the way to Rio Grande Village and unloaded our canoes, preparing for our backpacking trip into the Chisos Basin that night.

05 December 2012

"Studying"

Just one look out of the window and I knew I was in trouble. A Red-necked Grebe had been reported in Colorado recently, and staring at the Pied-billed Grebes in the distance I knew I wanted one of them to not be a Pied-billed Grebe. I had foolishly agreed to study at a friend's house this morning, and my mind was a million miles away. I glanced over and said "I'll be back, I'm going to go check out that bird."

And so my noble quest of not-studying began.

The grebes were, of course, Pied-billeds. But since I was outside, and it wasn't raining that hard, I figured I might as well check out the weedy fields nearby. Under the gray overcast skies, I trudges through the brush, heading further and further into what appeared to be a construction project abandoned a few years prior. The weeds were crawling with birds, and the proximity to the lake made for an interesting mix of species. Dozens of Black Vultures streamed from a nearby roost, passing silently overhead, which the constant calls of Swamp Sparrows revealed just how thick they were in this field (I estimated at least 26 individuals in my short little jaunt). The mud stuck to my feet as I worked my way ever forward towards the edge of the woods, working my way through the birds of the brush every dozen meters or so. House Wrens, Song Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows were by far the most common birds, but a 'drier' patch of weeds hosted a small party of Savannah Sparrows and a lone juvenile White-crowned Sparrow was nice confirmation for the one I thought I had heard earlier in the morning. I trudged onwards towards the trees and was amazed to find that the 'better' the habitat became, the fewer birds I had. At the treeline, I only had four species of bird new for the morning: Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jay and Red-headed Woodpecker. I began my slow return through the muddy field, attempting to keep from getting any dirtier in the clay dirt and drizzling rain. As I neared civilization again, a lone Lincoln's Sparrow flushed up next to me, providing a nice Melospiza sweep for the morning. (My complete checklist accessible here).

By the time I returned to my friend's house, my pants had brown sheet of clay staining them, my shins were caked in mud, and my shoes and socks were soaked through. The only thing harder than the mud to get rid of was the smile on my face as I walked inside and stared out the window, ignoring the shocked and confused looks from my clean contemporaries who had assumed I hadn't left the porch.

It was good to get back in the field again, and winter break can't come soon enough.

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On an unrelated note, lots of pelicans are moving through Louisiana right now, so in honor of them, here's a picture I took on Grand Isle a few years back. Good birding, and see you all on the other side of finals week!